Past Mortem: Project LMNO

Shortly before the dawn of the Xbox 360 and PS3 era, Electronic Arts was the biggest publishing powerhouse of the video games industry – but it had a problem. Many of its key franchises such as Need For Speed and The Sims were already starting to see a rot in terms of both creativity and sales. Its sports titles such as FIFA and Madden were still cash cows, but the company realised that many of their other IPs were stagnating, and this was beginning to cause some friction within the gaming community; the kind of friction that would eventually lead to EA being officially voted as The Worst Company In America.

By contrast, former EA executive Neil Young expressed his desire to connect with players on a more emotional level. At the Game Developers Conference in 2004, he predicted that within five years, a game would arrive that would make players cry. He said: “I think we’ll crack that problem in five years and it’ll be a watershed event for our business.” It would seem that at the time, there was a hunger within the publishing giant to create something more resonant than the beleaguered sequels it was synonymous with.

Back in the mid noughties, and with a new generation of machines on their way, EA decided to expand its portfolio by working on new, interesting IPs that would help to keep the company at the top of its game. They created an arm of the business solely for generating new, experimental properties called EA Blueprint, which would work on new projects and create stable prototypes. If these concepts took off, then EA would potentially outsource a lot of the development to affiliated studios, meaning that internal and external studios would take the reigns and work on the project until final release.

The easiest way to categorise the EA Blueprint initiative is to imagine a research and development department, but for video games. While the work within the studio was highly mysterious from an outsider’s perspective, EA began producing results when it came to new properties and ideas. Two high profile games that were born from this initiative were Dead Space and Mirror’s Edge; two games that were radically different to the EA of old, and one of which would spawn a couple of sequels, becoming a staple brand for that console generation. While their development cannot be tied to Blueprint (since both titles were developed by different teams at EA), their existence proves that the publisher was willing to turn a new corner when it came to creativity.

However, there was a particularly interesting title that enjoyed a very long, protracted development, and yet never saw the light of day. While it was never released, like Mirror’s Edge and Dead Space, it was a AAA title that didn’t focus on safe, dependable gameplay elements. That game was LMNO.

Back in 2005, EA struck up a new deal with Steven Spielberg that committed the decorated director to producing three new franchises. Spielberg, himself a self-confessed ardent gamer, had already worked with EA in some capacity and is even credited in Medal of Honour: Allied Assault, so there was already a precedent to this particular partnership. One of Spielberg’s proposed franchises emerged in the form of Boom Blox for the Wii. While the second franchise never seemed to materialise, the third was LMNO, a game which asked the question: “Can a video game make you cry?”

The idea was to produce an action game that set out to play with the player’s emotions, described as “a mix of first-person parkour movement with adventure/RPG objectives and escape-focused gameplay”.

While the premise may not sound too dissimilar to Mirror’s Edge, the gameplay would centre on the protagonist (an everyman named Lincoln) and his relationship with Eve, a humanoid alien on the run from the FBI. Lincoln and Eve would spend most of their time running away from overwhelming federal forces and ducking out of sight from helicopters in what the team referred to as “escape gameplay”.

For the most part, the game would play out like a first person action/adventure game with simple quest-building objectives like gathering undercover information and staying out of trouble. The game would then open up in action-orientated set-pieces where you are fighting for your life against government special forces.

In terms of the plot, LMNO would begin with Lincoln breaking Eve out of a military base without having a clue as to why he was compelled to do so. The game would then become a voyage of discovery as you avoid detection. Eve’s story would have been told through physical cues, as she lacked the ability to speak, but did have telepathic powers that would allow her to tap into Lincoln’s mind and show him things. Eve was also supposed to be a human from the distant future, as opposed to an extraterrestrial. With this detail, it isn’t much of a stretch to assume that time travel would somehow have been involved.

One of the main public screenshots of Eve.

Your relationship with Eve would have been dynamic in that your actions during the combat sections would have affected the way she felt about you. If you helped her by taking down enemies near her, healed her, and kept her stocked with items, she would have warmed to you and, in turn, helped you out if you were in a spot of bother yourself. Inversely, if you left her to her own devices, she would have slowly learned how to fend for herself, meaning that she wouldn’t use her psychic abilities to help you out in a tricky situation. This symbiotic relationship was designed to help the player grow attached to Eve through rewarding gameplay. It sounds comparable to the relationship between Booker and Elizabeth in Bioshock Infinite, except that Eve would have played a much more active role in LMNO, rather than serving as a plot device.

While this relationship would be enforced through this shared experience, Eve herself was designed to invoke sympathy in the player. The developers came up with many prototypes for Eve, but found themselves settling on a design that exaggerated a lot of her features. Large, expressive eyes and slender fingers would magnify her gestures, conveying her thoughts and emotions silently. This would give the animators more scope to work with, making her a receptive and likeable character.

To exaggerate this point, it was planned that Eve would be able to project images into Lincoln’s vision to help reinforce her thoughts and emotions. This would materialise, for example, in storm clouds that would appear if Eve was angry. The designers were going for sensitive rather than sexy, which would have been revolutionary for a female character back in the games industry of 2005.

To bring the game to life, EA hired designer Doug Church, and by early 2007, the project had roughly 25-30 internal employees working on a prototype. Doug’s appointment showed that EA was not trying to make a generic title, with his previous experience on System Shock, Thief and Tomb Raider, amongst others. Some of the heavy lifting was to be outsourced to Arkane Studios (now of Dishonoured fame and a subsidiary of ZeniMax Media) who would provide most of the level design and technical expertise. While many details of this prototype remain outside the public domain, this video provides a proof of concept, and shows the level of visual fidelity they were aiming for:

While some of the action animations in this video are ropey, the visual sophistication the developers were aiming for is commendable, and it’s easy to imagine what could have been possible within the game. With Spielberg on board, it’s not that much of a stretch to imagine the chase scene from E.T. being performed by parkour experts.

Spielberg’s involvement was one of the keenly anticipated aspects of LMNO. His role was to guide the project from a conceptual standpoint; to flesh out the background and offer his feedback, schedule permitting. EA filmed these meetings and showed them to the rest of the team.

As progress continued on the project, DICE, another of Electronic Art’s internal development teams, had already begun work on a rival parkour game. Mirror’s Edge was much more of a platformer than LMNO, possibly taking the free running aspect further in its design core. While the teams were working on totally different projects, with Mirror’s Edge being a gameplay-focused action game as opposed to LMNO’s narrative-driven story, the similarities were obvious. This created internal conflict, with one former team member saying to 1UP that “there was a perception that both teams were kind of fighting for development dollars. DICE had become a big name in EA over the last couple of years”.

Although the teams were allowed to continue their separate development cycles, Mirror’s Edge shipped in 2008, but LMNO was becoming increasingly conspicuous by its absence. After so long, the game was perpetually caught up in the prototype phase. The team couldn’t seem to agree on a basic design for the game’s length, with many on the team aiming for a short but replayable three-hour story mode. The concern was that this flew in the face of the typical ten-to-twelve hour campaign enjoyed by a standard action title.

While this indecision is possibly a large component of what made the project collapse, many sources seem to point to the initial idea being one that overreached in too many areas. LMNO wanted to redefine nearly all aspects that we’ve come to expect in video games, with new combat mechanics, new narrative constructs, new interactions, new standards for game length, and the overall ambition of the title.

Speaking on the 8-4 podcast in 2010, former EA developer Jake Kazdal said: “I don’t know exactly what was the thing that made it fall apart. I’m sure anybody you ask is gonna tell you something a little bit different, but it didn’t end up ever taking off.

“There was some rival game stuff that may or may not have come out of EA that was basically the same thing minus some of the stuff we were doing. There was just a lot of politics.”

By 2008, EA’s appetite for the game had already faded. Nearly three years of prototyping meant that the company had little faith in the project, especially one so short that lacked multiplayer. EA’s executives eventually stepped in, concerned over whether players would hold on to the game, and tried salvage something from the project.

The initial design was almost entirely scrapped, and they tried to rebuild the project in a more traditional action style. The title was renamed The Escape Artist, and the idea was to mostly scrap the character narrative in favour of creating an action game not dissimilar to Uncharted. The characters of Lincoln and Eve remained, but the title would attempt a cinematic, combat-heavy design and abandon much of the proposed AI and character interaction. Plot-wise, Eve would have been infected with a deadly virus, and Lincoln was attempting to find a cure before the human race became extinct.

Also working against the project was the changing climate at EA. Doug Church and Neil Young, two very outspoken advocates of the game, had left the company by this point. EA also took the decision to close its Blueprint studio. While the team was small by now (a skeleton staff of around ten people), many of them were sent to work in other departments, or were simply laid off, spelling doom for LMNO.

Even after the redesign and the closure of Blueprint, the project lurched on until EA finally pulled the plug on the game in 2009, before publicly announcing the project’s cancellation in 2010. While the cancellation was not a major shock, since very little information about the game had been released publicly, the promise of the game still resonates among many people. EA may still hold its relationship with Spielberg to this day, but it seems unlikely that we’ll ever see anything come from the remnants of LMNO.

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